Peter Mendelsund, cover image for The Trial (Schocken Books)

The Trial and the Castle: Franz Kafka and Theory

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The works of Franz Kafka have provoked an almost unparalleled range of social theoretical, philosophical, and creative responses in the near century since his untimely death in 1924. “The Castle and The Trial seem to bear the mark of philosophical theorems,” Theodor Adorno wrote from his Los Angeles exile, even while their “brittle prose functions like music.” Although Kafka published relatively little in his own life, he was nevertheless, by the time of his death, celebrated and hotly debated in small, particularly left-wing circles. An obituary in Prague’s Communist Rudé Právo described him as “a writer of rare quality…who held our corrupt world in abhorrence and dissected it with the scalpel of his reason.” Considerations of Kafka as a social critic and humorist were developed in far greater depth by figures like Siegfried Kraucer and Walter Benjamin. For critics like these, he was an exemplar of socialist experimentation, a writer who drew from a diversity of sources and elements, from Jewish law and commentary to Chinese poetry, bureaucratic paperwork, and parables. Indeed, Kafka’s novels have served as a launching pad for a wide range of social and philosophical theorizing: for Benjamin’s syntheses of historical materialism and secularized Judaic concepts; for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s stage tests of “machinic assemblage” and the “rhizomatic”; for Judith Butler’s interrogations of identity, property, and belonging; or for Mark Fisher’s “negative atheology” of Capital. Why are Kafka’s works so conducive to theoretical innovation? Why do so many works of contemporary fiction—on the page or the screen—return to Kafka’s stories? Why does Kafka—one of the strangest writers of the twentieth century—resonate ever more strongly in the twenty-first?

In this course, we will address these questions by reading Kafka’s posthumously published (and incomplete) novels The Castle and The Trial alongside other theoretical texts and investigations. We’ll look at a handful of Kafka’s other writings, from short stories to the detailed reports he produced for the Prague Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, as well as recent studies on Kafka’s reception in post-Revolutionary China, his debt to the colonial Caribbean and Africa, and more, as we try to situate Kafka’s relationship to his immediate world and times, his oft-overlooked humor, and his continuing relevance today. At the same time, we will ask: why did Kafka spark such fierce debate? Why did thinkers like Bertolt Brecht and György Lukács view Kafka’s texts as politically fraught, despite admiring their stylistic ingenuity? What did Kafka contribute to their further theorization? What is the place of Jewish thought in Kafka’s work? We’ll also examine brief examples of Kafka’s influences, not principally in artists who display an overt and obvious debt to Kafka, but in those in which Kafka’s texts, style, and substance are playfully reimagined or recapitulated—as, for example, in snippets of Clarice Lispector’s writings, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and television sequences and cartoons. On the other hand, we’ll ask how and why Kafka has been “assimilated” or “incorporated” (as Adorno once put it), particularly in ways inapposite or hostile to the thematics of Kafka’s work? Finally, we’ll explore the central and proliferating consideration of Kafka for theory and Kafka as a writer and theorist himself of a capitalist bureaucratic world, where, as Kafka quipped, there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—just not for us.”

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 07 — March 28, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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